Psalm 72: Justice for the Poor

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If Canada were to select an official national scripture, I would nominate Psalm 72.

Sir Samuel Leonard Tilley read Psalm 72 during his morning devotions as the fathers of Confederation met in 1864 to decide upon a name for our nation. Based on that Psalm, Tilley proposed that our nation be called “the Dominion of Canada”. Canadian leaders later chose the phrase “from sea to sea,” again from Psalm 72, and by proclamation of King George V in 1921, those words became part of our official coat of arms.

But that’s not why I would select it. The reason I would nominate Psalm 72 is that this is a good Psalm for a nation -- it speaks of justice, and it speaks particularly directly to those of us who have the nerve to call ourselves leaders in the land, whether political, religious, social or moral.

Whether David wrote this as a blessing on Solomon or if Solomon wrote it as a blessing on his own life, the audacity of the author is clear. He prays literally that God will make Solomon even greater than before, and likewise, make the nation even greater as well. “In case I am not famous enough today, make me more famous. And let the kings and queens of other nations come and bow before me.”

There is arrogance in this prayer, but there is also moral conviction and the request: “Make me just.” Whoever wrote it understood that if Solomon was to become truly a magnificent world-class leader, he must be an advocate of the poor and for the poor. The prayer offers no comments about financial competency, no plea for management skills, no petition for competency either in diplomacy or war, no call for economic genius. Instead, there is simply the request that the king would be “just” – a powerful advocate for the poorest of the poor, a ruler willing to crush those who mistreat the poor. Psalm 72 recognizes that great leaders and their nations take care of their poor.

To make certain the first hearers of these words got the message, the writer uses three separate words to describe the poor and their plight: “aniy,” “dal”, and “ebyone.”

“Aniy” is a Hebrew term for the poor who are oppressed and for victims of violence: whether in the home, the family, or the community or at the hands of government. “Dal” are those who are poor by virtue of infirmity or illness, whether physical, chemical or emotional. “Ebyone” are the dependent poor, those who cannot survive economically and socially without assistance from family, the community or the state. Then, as today, these are those poor most quickly and deeply despised.

And it is the King who is to defend them all.

This admonition to the king is consistent with the introductory teachings and laws set down for the nation of Israel. In its founding charter, as it were, the nation is called – commanded even – by God to create a nation in which there would be no grinding poverty, and no multi-generational poverty. The mandate God gave them was to create a society in which need provokes a quick and sustained response, so that the children of the poor would not become trapped in cycles of poverty that spiral downward to desperation. Israel was given a series of economic laws prescribing how its leaders were to respond to the poor. Psalm 72 reiterates: it is the ruler, the King, who is to ensure those laws are enacted to benefit and protect the poor.

In fact, the weight of Scripture makes it clear that the mandate given to Solomon applies to anyone who purports to lead – and in particular, lead a faith community. And so I and every other leader – of a mission, a denomination, a congregation, an agency, a city, province, or country – must wrestle with the question: what is our responsibility?

Thankfully, the Psalm is just as eloquent on how we can tell if we’re doing things rightly: It offers three marks of a great nation and its leadership, and sets a moral tone for leadership for both nations and churches.

I. The first mark of a great nation and of great leaders is that they stand for justice.

If you are poor, you might very well pick Canada as your first choice for nation of residence. In fact, hundreds of thousands in the world would do exactly that. Few nations have as good a record of providing for those in need as does Canada. We have lost ground in the past decade, to be sure, with our international ranking slipping, but Canada is certainly in the top tier of preferred places to live if you are impoverished. The United Nations has rightly suggested that the gap between the rich and the poor in our nation is a blemish, and that the care we provide is noticeably diminishing even as need grows. Still, as a nation we do better than most developed nations.

But is that good enough?

When I was 19, I visited a little drop-in center that worked with socially handicapped children. From that day I have never been far away from poverty. It is strange and disturbing to have spent most of my life working among the poor, and after a few dozen years, realize that things have grown worse: the poor in Canada are worse off now than when I visited that drop-in centre.

As a result of that realization I’ve changed my thinking on some core issues around compassion and justice. Clearly compassion is simply not enough!

The family of faith has mandated and supported my ministry, and represents some of the most compassionate caregivers in this land. The mission I serve with has intervened compassionately in the lives of low-income individuals and families for 110 years. But compassion is not enough!

It is not enough to run food banks, or clothing stores, or serve a gazillion meals. Nor that we provide housing and employment. It is not enough that we operate drop-in centres and work the streets and alleys of our cities and function as chaplains in our jails.

Nor is it adequate that the church is the number two provider of care of the poor in this land and that we number in the many thousands of caregivers, front line workers and support workers. Nor that we have combined budgets of hundreds of millions of dollars and beyond.

And what’s hardest for many, it is not enough that we are sincere, caring, compassionate and committed people. What lies beyond compassion? The author of Psalm 72 knew. What lies beyond compassion is justice. It is time to commit ourselves to justice – to be “truth-tellers:” justice means speaking truth, neither exaggerating or under-stating, because distorting truth is immoral.

Once again, the Psalmist gives us direction, using specific words to describe three dimensions of justice.

First, the legal decisions of the land are to be moral. They are not to be biased and are not to favour a particular group of individuals. No one working for or with the poor in Canada today believes they get unbiased treatment in law.

Second, the poor, especially the victimized and oppressed poor, are to be actively defended and vindicated when their oppressors wrongly accuse them. In verse 2 Solomon is called to plead for justice for the oppressed. In verse 4 it says he is to vindicate the victimized and the oppressed. To vindicate means to declare them guiltless or innocent.

Third, in a just society, neither the church nor the state re-victimizes the poor by blaming them for their poverty. More than 400 passages and 2,000 verses of Scripture clearly signify that the prime causes of poverty are beyond the power of the individual to change or to even manage. The Psalmist would not have known much youth crime or chemical dependency, but he would have recognized them as symptoms of poverty – and labelling the symptom as the cause to shift blame away from those with authority and privilege is immoral.

These three concepts have significant implications. For example, the legal rights of the poor are not simply a fair trial but also extend to a fair and reasonable share of a nations goods and services. I do not believe that everyone should have an equal share, but rather a fair and reasonable share. What is fair and reasonable? As Charles Handy wrote, a society in which the top one per cent of the population earns as much as the bottom 40 per cent does not represent a fair distribution of wealth, and is unjust.

Then too, the leader of a nation is not simply to minimize injustice, nor even simply to ensure that justice happens; the leader is to be the prime advocate for justice - the prime promoter of justice. Thus the Prime Minister of Canada is to be the leading advocate for the poor and he or she will likewise lead in accountability when we as a nation stand before God in judgement.

And what of we who say we know God? In Jeremiah 22 we read: “did not your father the King eat and drink . . . and plead the cause of the oppressed poor and of the dependent poor?” Then the prophet says “ ‘Is this not what it means to know me?’ declares the Lord.” The Scripture is not anti-wealth but it does expect the powerful and the wealthy to be first in line when it comes to caring for and advocating for the poor. So if those who declare themselves Christians are not pleading the cause of the poor, how would we ever be so arrogant as to say that we know God? Never mind that we are neither kings nor prophets: we claim the mantle of leadership and we are called by God to journey with the poor and we need to recognize injustice and stand for justice.

Compassion is not enough. We cannot abandon compassion but we must stand for and advocate for justice even as we work compassionately. We must not simply run the programs that serve the poor; we must speak with a strong and prophetic voice with and alongside the poor, and name injustice, truthfully, wherever it appears.

Pursuing justice will call for new action and new thinking. We will need to work with other organizations and commit ourselves, not to the reduction of poverty but to the elimination of poverty in this Nation. Each ministry and church must critically review its own activities. Front line workers need to change their attitudes and to work within churches and within denominations. We need to work with governments across party lines, as Gerald Vanderzande, former director of Citizens for Public Justice, taught us: we don’t align ourselves with a party; we speak to all parties for justice.

II. The second mark of a great nation, and the second mark of great leaders is that they stand and work for “Shalom.”

Shalom means Peace – and great nations and great leaders stand and work for Shalom. But “peace” is not superficial quiet. Shalom in Jeremiah 29 is the welfare and well-being of a whole city or nation and all its people. Shalom in Psalm 72 is the personal safety of the poor.

Great leaders work for safety. The Psalmist prays for an abundance of safety, that peace and safety will roll down from the hills. The writer is wise enough to know that you have to pray for justice before you can pray for peace because peace grows out of justice. But he also knows that peace is something that must also be worked for, and in verses 4 and 12 he prays “may he save the children and deliver the dependent poor when he cries for help, the victimized and the oppressed also.” In verse 13, the King’s godly ambition is to have compassion – meant here as an action, not a feeling – on the sick and the infirmed poor, and to save the lives of the dependent poor. In verse 14 he is named as the one to rescue their lives from oppression and from violence.

It is time for a new peace movement that grows out of our churches and ministries, for us to stand and say that we are against violence in every form – physical, emotional, and verbal. Churches need to lead here. If government can deal with laws and policies and programs, the church is well equipped to deal with peace.

III. The third mark of a great nation and great leaders is their recognition that the poor are precious in God’s sight and should be equally precious in our sight.

To God, the poor are precious. Reflecting God’s heart, a great leader also considers the poor to be precious. Psalm 72 is about revealing God’s heart, and God sees the poor as people of worth, people with a valuable contribution to make to the good of the nation.

We rise during worship and sing about the precious blood of Jesus, while Jesus is weeping about the precious blood of the poor. He values the poor, and he has taught this clearly: regardless of what we may sing, when we exploit the poor, or slander them, or punish them, or simply ignore them, we do it all to Christ. The people we serve are precious to God; on what basis dare we be arrogant or feel superior?

James tells us that God has chosen the poor to be “rich in faith and heirs to the Kingdom of God.” If we want to be “rich in faith,” that passage should give us pause. To be rich in faith, we need to hang out with the people who, God says, are rich in faith. If we want to find courage for life, then we should spend our lives with those for whom every day requires great courage just to survive.

Scripture teaches that God is debtor to no person; when we perform what we hope are “good works” for God, the books are often balanced by God blessing us through the very people we feel called to serve. The poor are precious: they have worth and wealth to share with those of us who will have eyes to see.

We dare to hope, dare to believe, and dare to envision a Canada in which there is no poverty, where no injustice stains our hands or hearts. We can commit ourselves to be great leaders, leaders who stand for justice, who stand for peace, and who view every person in the nation as precious in the sight of God and so, very precious in our sight.

For Reflection

  1. Psalm 72 talks about the mandate given to Solomon to defend the poor and advocate for justice. How does this message apply to the political, religious and social leaders of today? What kind of leadership is needed to create a just society?
  2. What is our responsibility toward the poor as an individual and as a faith community? The author of Psalm 72 knew that justice lies beyond compassion. How do we work beyond charity and commit to justice? How can we be “truth-tellers” in speaking out for the poor?
  3. As the gap between the rich and poor widens and income inequality increases in Canadian society, what is a “fair and reasonable share of goods and services” to ensure justice for the poor? What does the Scripture say about the role of the wealthy in caring for the poor?
  4. Peace goes alongside justice and is needed to rescue the poor from oppression and violence. How can the church be a leader in practicing shalom or peace and ensuring the well-being of individuals and communities? What are some actions faith communities can take to promote peace and justice?
  5. The Scripture tells us the poor are precious and valuable in the sight of God. According to James, the poor are “rich in faith and heirs to the Kingdom of God.” How do we see and treat the poor? How do our actions reflect our faith?

Rick Tobias is President and CEO of Yonge Street Mission in Toronto, and chaired the first Street Level Conference in 1994.This reflection is based on an address given at Street Level 2006. From March 29 to April 1, 2006 nearly 350 individuals, representing some 70 organizations from across Canada who are passionately engaged in finding solutions to poverty and homelessness, gathered in Ottawa to participate in Street Level 2006.

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